What is Loyalty?

I have always been interested in the virtue of loyalty.  I sometimes tend to be loyal to a fault.  My loyalty to sports teams, the places and institutions where I have been formed, and my family, to name a few, runs deep.  I was thus interested to learn about Eric Felton’s book Loyalty: The Vexing VirtueJeffrey Galbraith of Wheaton College reviews it in the March issue of Books and Culture.  Here is a taste:

Felten thinks loyalty gets a bad reputation, while conceding that sometimes this reputation is deserved. The objects of loyalty are the likely culprits: to what or to whom should an individual be loyal? God, country, spouse, employer, organic produce—our attachments are multiple. Because they conflict, we must deliberate which should take precedence and on what grounds. Despite these difficulties, Felten remains a cheerleader for loyalty. There may not be “one easy formula” for determining the point at which loyalty to a friend should outweigh loyalty to family or society, but the reader should not lose heart, as “there’s been no shortage of strategies proposed to limit the number of soul-battering loyalties let loose in the bumper-car pavilion at one time.” Just don’t go down the path of novelist Graham Greene, who famously “renounced loyalty altogether.”
Loyalty‘s primary method is the application of canonical examples to contemporary mores and recent events. Felten raises issues primarily to leave them unresolved, creating more of a commonplace book than a compelling argument. The number and combination of examples are the book’s strongest attribute. Obama becomes a Prince Hal figure, for instance, with Jeremiah Wright the Falstaff whom he must betray to assume the mantle of power. In particular, I enjoyed the mash-up of Great Books and celebrity gossip in the chapter on marriage, “For Better or Worse.” There Felten cites verses from Edmund Spenser and William Blake in a discussion of John Edwards’ betrayal of his long-suffering wife.
Strange, intriguing juxtapositions lurk around every corner. We hear about Agamemnon’s tragic decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, as an example of when political loyalties take precedence over the bonds of kinship. A few pages later, Felten explores a counterexample in the form of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Felten recalls Agamemnon in order to declaim against Kantian ethics; the next moment, he’s using Don Corleone’s allegiance to family as an illustration of Burkean conservatism.